Coup: Burkina Faso military President expels French soldiers from his country
The Burkina Faso armed forces on Sunday certified the withdrawal of French troops deployed on its territory with a "solemn ceremony" held at the Bila Zegré base in this town on the outskirts of Ouagadougou.
Coup: Burkina Faso military President expels French soldiers from his country
Burkina Faso certifies the expulsion of French troops from its territory
The French flag no longer flies in Kamboinsin. The Burkina Faso armed forces on Sunday certified the withdrawal of French troops deployed on its territory with a “solemn ceremony” held at the Bila Zegré base in this town on the outskirts of Ouagadougou. The Chief of Staff of the Burkinabé army, Colonel Adam Neré, and French Lieutenant Colonel Louis Lecacheur, head of Operation Sabre, staged a historic ceremony marking the definitive end of France’s military presence in Burkina Faso more than six decades after its independence.
A presence reinforced eight years ago by the Elysée to contain the advance of jihadist groups in the Sahel.
It was only a matter of time. At the end of January, the most nationalist faction of the Burkinabe army prevailed and convinced Captain Ibrahim Traoré to bring forward the end of the worn-out Operation Sabre, a decision that would entail the departure of French troops from the country. Days later, the French Foreign Ministry received a formal request to withdraw the more than 400 troops deployed in Kamboinsin. By then, the military junta had already annulled the agreement regulating the presence of French special forces in the camp, which had been in force since 2018. The Elysée had a maximum of 30 days to carry out the complete withdrawal.
“Most of the [French] soldiers have already left,” a Burkinabe security source told Agence France-Press. The Elysée was aware that, sooner or later, the Burkinabe soldiers would strike the coup de grâce on Sabre. They had it all planned. That is why, a few hours after the military junta’s announcement, the French armed forces began their withdrawal. Although there are still French military personnel in Kamboinsin, who are due to leave the military barracks this week, the parties have not set a specific date for security reasons. But there would be no relocation of troops to the region; instead, the half a thousand troops would return to France, according to analyst Seidik Abba. “There are already 1,500 French troops in Niger and [the Ivorian base in] Abidjan is too far from the Sahel theatre of operations. Hence the option of repatriation,” he explains on the social network Twitter.
The decision by Burkina Faso’s new military junta comes after months of bilateral tensions with France, the former metropolis. The October coup led by Captain Ibrahim Traoré, a 34-year-old artilleryman from the town of Kaya with field combat experience against jihadist groups, soured relations with Paris over its rapprochement with Russia. Traoré seized control from Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who only nine months earlier had ousted Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, the former president elected at the polls, in the face of his inability to articulate a defensive plan against jihadist groups.
Damiba avoided following the path of General Assimi Goita in neighbouring Mali, who had decided months earlier to switch security alliances, expelling French troops and hiring Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group in their place. Half of the military establishment and a large part of civil society called on the lieutenant general to do so, but his immobility in the face of the uncontainable advance of the jihadists led to Traoré’s uprising. The young captain did not show as much restraint as his predecessor and, barely three months after taking command, he took the plunge. However, the decision “does not mean the end of diplomatic relations with France”, government spokesman Jean-Emmanuel Ouedraogo explained in January on national broadcaster RTB.
Traoré insists that “there is no break in diplomatic relations with France” following the expulsion of the Sabre forces. This is confirmed by Chrysoula Zacharopoulou, the French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs’ Secretary of State for Development, Francophonie and International Partnerships. However, in January, the Elysée withdrew its ambassador to Ouagadougou, Luc Hallade, at the request of the Burkinabe authorities. It is undeniable that tensions persist and that the situation could worsen in the coming weeks depending on the course taken by Traoré’s military junta.
The Burkinabe military junta is seeking to reassure the mining groups that the security situation around its goldfields is clearly deteriorating, especially with the complete withdrawal of French soldiers, reports the confidential Africa Intelligence. This is the reason that forces Traoré to keep a cool head and not to blow up relations with France, as Goita did in his day, and as the dozens of demonstrators who demand an end to French influence in the country demand of him almost daily from the streets of Ouagadougou.
The protests against the former metropolis, which they accuse of fomenting the jihadist threat, bring together nationalists, pan-Africanists, Russophiles and even Wahhabis. “The resentment against Paris is so strong that stirring it up has become for these military officers who have assumed the mantle of statesmen a way of uniting the population around their power, whose legitimacy is disputed”, says analyst Morgane Le Cam for Le Monde.
But Burkina Faso’s interim president is threatening to engage Wagner’s services as part of a new military strategy to combat terrorist groups operating in large swathes of the country. In fact, some believe the deal is already in place. Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo alleged in December that Russian fighters were on its northern border with Burkina Faso and that the Burkinabe authorities had handed over ‘a mine as payment for their services’, a standard consideration the Kremlin’s private military contractor receives for its services in Africa. The military junta flatly rejected the allegations and decided to sever relations with Ghana by withdrawing its ambassador to Accra.
“We hear everywhere that Wagner is in Ouagadougou, I even asked some people, “Oh really, where are they?”,” Traoré wondered in an interview with local media. “Our Wagner are our Volunteers for the Defence of the Fatherland (VDP, VDP, by its French acronym),” he said, referring to the 50,000 civilians recruited by the military junta to swell the army’s ranks as part of the new anti-terrorism strategy. The interim president bases his military action on the concept of popular defence, as revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara did in the early 1980s. Civilians, however, have only received 14 days of training and there are many risks.
Still, suspicions of his association with Wagner are not unfounded. A few days before requesting the withdrawal of French troops from the country, Burkina Faso’s acting prime minister visited Moscow for a discreet meeting with the number two in the Russian Foreign Ministry. Apollinaire Kyélem de Tambèla, a renowned Burkinabe lawyer and polemicist educated in Paris, made a declaration of intent when interviewed on RT: “We want Russia to be an ally in the fight against terrorism, like all our partners. We know that Russia is a great power and if Russia wants to, it can really help us in this area”. Russia’s military assistance in the Sahel is channelled through weapons and mercenaries.
Captain Traoré stressed that the partnerships his government is seeking are mainly military in nature. “If we are not allowed to acquire military equipment in this or that country, we will go to other countries to acquire it, because we are not going to sit back and watch our people die”, said the interim president, who pointed out that if a country comes “to colonise us, to dominate us, we will not agree”. This seems to be the main demand of the demonstrators, who carried national, Malian and Russian flags, as well as posters with images of Traoré, Goita and Vladimir Putin.
A new phase in the Sahel
The departure of the French troops from Burkina Faso is a new blow to the geopolitics of the region. “The international alliances that have dictated the Sahel’s response to violent extremism over the past decade are crumbling,” condemns analyst Mathijs Cazemier on the Africa Is a Country website. The withdrawal also marks the beginning of a new phase in the anti-terrorist fight against Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State operating in the region, which have caused more than 2 million displaced people in Burkina Faso alone. From now on, it will be its own forces that will try to contain the threat, communication minister Rimtalba Ouedraogo told RTB.
For the Burkinabe daily Le Pays, Ouagadougou will now have “the opportunity to fully assume its responsibilities”. “One thing is certain, it is another slap in the face for France, whose paternalistic, hegemonic and ambivalent policy has ended up anchoring in Burkinabe public opinion that the objectives of its military presence in the homeland of men of integrity have always been unclear and have never been in line with the country’s interests,” adds the newspaper on Operation Sabre. Civil society denounces France’s limited military involvement, although under the terms of the 2018 agreement, troops based in Kamboinsin could only intervene if required by the local authorities. And it is not entirely clear when they have been called upon on the battlefield.
Traoré has pledged to hold elections in July 2024, a matter of great concern within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has decided to maintain its sanctions against Ouagadougou for the continuation of the military regime. But the young captain’s main promise has been to take back the territory from jihadist groups. Unlike Damiba, Traoré has ruled out any negotiations with the insurgents: “They are attacking unarmed civilians, who are calmly sitting in their homes, or travelling (…) they are arrested and killed. How can you negotiate with people who do that? Burkina is a sovereign country, a secular country, and these values are not negotiable”.
“The war has not started”, Traoré declared in what was his first interview since taking power.